Steve's Blog

Doing the Bad Apple Analogy Right

Author: Stephen J. Turnbull
Organization: Faculty of Engineering, Information, and Systems at the University of Tsukuba
Contact: Stephen J. Turnbull <>
Date: 2017/09/18
Copyright: 2017, Stephen J. Turnbull

Doing the Bad Apple Analogy Right

When I was a kid, the Jackson Five (of whom Michael Jackson was the youngest, and Janet Jackson wasn't a member at all) sang a song called "One Bad Apple (Don't Spoil the Whole Bunch)". I'm sure others have a different "take", but to me that's the immediate, natural interpretation of talk about "bad apples". Yes, there are bad apples, but they're unusual and they don't spoil the whole bunch.

But that's not the whole story. If you don't have just an abstract "bunch" of apples, but instead store them in a barrel, one rotten apple left in the barrel will contribute to spreading decay by allowing bacteria and mold to proliferate and infest nearby apples.

Feeling like a boring version of Dave Barry, I go on to add that that is still not the whole story. If you have a harvest of any size, you'll fill several barrels with apples. Most of those barrels will be full of good apples, and they'll keep for quite a while (long enough to turn them all into delicious desserts, anyway).

But a few barrels will end up unusable, with many rotten apples and the rest tainted by contact.

The Moral of the Story

I'd like to remind my friends on the "Left" (you know who you are, even if that word doesn't mean what I used to think it does any more, and a few of you may even take it as an insult) that in the apple analogy most barrels are contain a lot of good apples. Most of the rest in those barrels at worst have a bruise you can eat around. And maybe you need to discard one or two bad ones from the barrel. Where we are fortunate to be in possession of a "good" barrel of apples, let's by all means polish them up and put them on display.

And you of the "Right" (similar disclaimer applies), if you've never seen a bad apple, or your barrel has only ever had one or two, that's great. But please don't turn your eyes from the barrels here and there that have spoiled en masse. Apple rot really is endemic, it systematically affects a certain kind of barrel, sometimes whole wagonloads, and is gradually convincing thoughtful people that apples in general are dangerous to our health. Your barrel's reputation depends to some extent on the reputation of all apples.

Right, left, or bottom of the barrel, a lot is at stake here.

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Stephen J. Turnbull